Why Are We So Nostalgic For 2003 Right Now?

You are embarrassingly invested in J-Lo and Ben Affleck’s romance and excited for the forthcoming season of Sex And The City. Leonardo DiCaprio is dating a 23-year-old; everyone is talking about Britney Spears. 2003, is that you?

Paris Hilton, Sienna Miller, 2003, Britney, Madonna

by Laura Antonia Jordan |
Updated on

You are coveting a slashed and stretched Roberto Cavalli outfit, but will settle for pulling up your super-low-cut jeans on a Friday night. You are embarrassingly invested in J-Lo and Ben Affleck’s romance and excited for the forthcoming season of Sex And The City. Leonardo DiCaprio is dating a 23-year-old; everyone is talking about Britney Spears. The year is 2003 – or, hang on, is it 2021?

This year, fashion and pop culture bears an uncanny resemblance to the early noughties. In Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay, The Uncanny, he positioned the psychological phenomenon as something that is both familiar and alien. It can be eerie, frightening even – a fair assessment of the terrifying comeback of trucker hats.

So why 2003? Why now? Inevitably, part of it is that fashion is cyclical. What is cool has a short shelf life; but eventually it has been in the uncool wilderness long enough to be welcomed back. It becomes surprising, ironic, knowing. None of us are strangers at raiding past decades for inspiration – newness is an illusion.

But there is also something particularly comforting about throwing back to 2003. After the discombobulating somersaults of the past 18 months, aren’t we all craving familiarity and frivolity, just as we could find solace in lightness in a post 9/11 world? For those who remember it, 2003 is recent enough to evoke nostalgia, but sufficiently small in the rearview mirror for us to forgive its crimes against taste. For Gen Z (born from 1997 to 2006) it is ready to be discovered afresh.

Looking back, there is also a touching naivety to 2003. Five years before the 2008 crash, when it was ordinary people with big dreams who went on reality TV (Girls Aloud won Pop Idol that year), these were also the last days of a world not run by social media (MySpace was founded that year; Facebook came in 2004). Instagram in particular has homogenised personal style, back then our fashion mistakes could shuffle off into obscurity.

Of course, celebrities would disagree. There was no Twitter, but bitchiness was given space to thrive courtesy of Perez Hilton and ‘Worst Dressed’ lists. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that the way Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and their ilk were treated in the tabloids – torn apart as a new millennium blood sport – was deeply damaging. Now we’ve got a chance to rectify that, which seems like the best reason of all to give 2003 a second chance.

Bring on Beyoncé

Crazy In Love could fill a dance floor in 2003 and can still do it today (ditto Sound Of The Underground, Hey Ya!, In Da Club and Breathe). In homage to Beyoncé, Zendaya – possibly the best dressed woman of 2021 – wore a S/S ’03 Versace dress to this year’s BET Awards, a version similar to the one Queen B wore 18 years earlier. ‘Get you a stylist with a ARCHIVE!!!! [sic]’ the man behind the look, Law Roach, wrote on Instagram.

Bennifer reboot

The ultimate modern love story or a cynical PR exercise? Who cares. The Bennifer reunion – after an 18-year hiatus – transports us straight back to our teen dreams of what True Love would look like. Emotional petrol for the unbreakable romantics among us.

This old thing?

Zendaya is not the only Insta-gen star with a taste for early noughties vintage. Kylie Jenner loves 2003’s Louis Vuitton collaboration with Takashi Murakami. Bella Hadid rocks archive Jean-Paul Gaultier and Galliano-era Dior; Addison Rae wore 2003 Tom Ford Gucci to this year’s Met (also google: Phoebe Philo’s Chloé and Nicolas Ghesquière’s Balenciaga). The new-old name to drop right now however is Roberto Cavalli: Kim Kardashian has several pieces, Paloma Elsesser has a mini-and-bandeau set, Leomie Anderson the jeans, Iris Law wore a cut-out Cavalli gown to a gala dinner this summer. In her video for Brutal, Olivia Rodrigo shows her allegiance to Britney Spears by wearing a Cavalli look that Brit wore back in, yep, 2003. Set your eBay alerts immediately.

Hats off to the past

Proof that redemption is, indeed, possible for all sartorial crimes: the Von Dutch trucker cap is also back (see Nicola Peltz). Please let the jaunty fedora stay where it belongs, though – in the past.

Football crazy

An 18-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo signed for Manchester United; he has just returned to Old Trafford. In other football(ish) news: this summer’s Euros prove that ’00s pin-up hair still has the capacity to make us thirsty – thank you Jack Grealish.

We’ll always have Paris

The Simple Life landed on our screens. Its premise? Two rebellious rich girls – Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie – slumming it with ‘ordinary’ folk. Since then we’ve become enlightened to the fact that Paris was in on the joke all along; she’s not the baby-voiced bimbo she appears, but she knows how to ham it up for her brand. This year, Paris returned to our screens in her best pink, glitter and bouncy blonde hair form in Cooking With Paris. Flummoxed by the most rudimentary kitchen utensils, a more accurate title might be ‘Cooking’ With Paris. Nevertheless, she was and still is TV gold. That’s hot! (Or not, Rotten Tomatoes gave the show a 25% rating.)

Another bite of the big apple

Legend has it, if you click your Manolos together three times, you will be transported to the Manhattan of 2003, where Cosmopolitans were downed, writers got paid $4 per word and fabulous people still said ‘fabulous’. But, if you’re yet to brave heels post-pandemic, no problem – filming of Sex And The City reboot, And Just Like That…, is now underway in New York. It was the 2003 series that gave us one of the most memorable cameos: Jennifer Coolidge as newly divorced Victoria and deliverer of the iconic line, ‘Because of that f**ker, I’ve discovered I’m Fendi.’ No word yet on whether ‘purse parties’ are due to become a thing (were they ever?), but it’s been a thrill to see Coolidge thrive in similarly highly-strung comedic top form in The White Lotus.

Friends zone

Friends’ final season began. Proof that we still can’t get enough of the sitcom, this year’s highly-anticipated reunion was a star-studded affair. As an added bonus we even got the gossip that would have made us combust in 2003: Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer admitted they had both fancied each other. Alas, rumours this summer that they were dating IRL were nothing more than wishful thinking.

Style it like Beckham

Today, we can’t get enough of Victoria Beckham’s polished sophistication. But for a new breed of red carpet stars, it’s her 2003 looks they’ll want on their mood boards. In particular, see her fondness for Dolce & Gabbana’s corseted dresses that year – in spangled white or zebra print. And do you remember 2003 documentary The Real Beckhams? Well, one reason to look forward to 2022: a Netflix one is coming.

Micro trends

Nelly Furtado and Christina Aguilera loved them in 2003; Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Lily Rose Depp wear them now. The belly chain is back. See also: dresses over trousers, tube tops, rimless sunglasses.

Interior design crimes

If you care about interior design, hell is a ‘themed’ living room bedecked with MDF. After 13 seasons, Carole Smilie departed Changing Rooms in 2003. This year, it returned to Channel 4 with Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen intact. The lesson: being stuck inside during lockdown might have been bad, but it could have been worse.

Teenage kicks

2003 was a bittersweet year for teen angst. It was farewell to Dawson’s Creek and hello to The OC. We still can’t get enough of the antics of privileged teens: 2006’s Gossip Girl has been rebooted and landed on our screens in August.

Sienna’s boho style

Jude Law started dating Sienna Miller and a whole industry of knock-off coin belts and gladiator sandals was born. She has long moved on from Jude, though is yet to be fully estranged from the ‘boho luxe’ epithet. And the look has enjoyed a resurgence this year (crochet, patchwork, Uggs).

Butterfly effect

The true millennium bug was the butterfly. Fast-forward to today and Lizzo, Dua Lipa and Bella Hadid love them.

Less is more

Cropped tops with super-low-slung jeans were big news. We regret to inform you that the revival nobody asked for is here. It wasn’t until 2004 we got Jodie Marsh’s belt look, but – warning –this may be next.

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